Saturday, June 27, 2009

France: dressed or oppressed?

The Pakistan report card
France: dressed or oppressed?
The News, June 27, 2009
Fasi Zaka

Driving in Peshawar is reputed to be a lot like driving in Rome, or possibly worse. As a teenager when I was learning how to drive, my teacher insisted I move into every nook and cranny with total disregard for the right of commuters. But he said two solid rules had to be followed without exception, we had to make way for cows (because they don't move out of the way and can seriously damage the car) and give room for women in burqas (because their peripheral vision in it is poor).

I was quite uncomfortable in treating women in burqas at par with animals. As I grew up I realised a lot many people equate them as one and the same, captives to man without any individual rights. In much the same way, Nicholas Sarkozy has done the same in his address to Parliament in France.

On a personal level I have been uncomfortable with the idea of the burqa, and this was especially after I was walking through Lahore's food street one day and saw a woman eating like a horse because she had to fit the food close to her mouth in a manner that did not compromise her modesty. That being said, I am committed to it if it is a matter of true choice of an emancipated woman. Forcibly covering a woman is as big an atrocity as it is uncovering one, like it seems the French are intent to do.

What the French are doing makes no sense to me. I understand their commitment to secularism, but secularism is a concept that allows for freedom of the individual to practice their own religion as long as they don't push their agenda to the state. With their line on the burqa, the French are implying that secularism has a uniform, which it doesn't and shouldn't.

This reminds me a lot of a failed proposal many years ago in Mumbai that aimed to ban beggars. A ban will not eliminate begging, it will simply push beggars to other areas where they cannot be seen, letting the elites feel comfortable in their extravagance.

Doing away with the burqa in France is a similar proposal. They have huge problems with the economic wellbeing of their Muslim population, doing away with those who seem visibly Muslim will not make the problem go away.

The French aren't the only country in the world to impose restrictions on the burqa. According to The Times of the UK in a fact sheet, there are many more.

Secularism is about choice, not forced choices. Banning schoolchildren from wearing innocuous headscarves (let alone the burqa) is simply creating intra-colonialism. Rather than addressing their secular issues with a Muslim population, like taking up crime and unemployment, choosing to outlaw Muslim symbols, or attempting to, only serves to alienate them.

The presumptive ubiquity of burqas in the Muslim world is a stereotype long held to be universally true in the west, and those that have been through the Islamic world know that it is mainly a mainstay of countries led by an iron fist (like some of the petrodollar Arab world) and in areas where the culture has long been extremely patriarchal.

None of this, of course, condones where the burqa has been a tool of oppression. But quite often the burqa itself, and this distinction needs to be recognised, is just one of the many outcomes of forced seclusion. The real issue, of course, is not the burqa but the societies with inequity, a lack of representation for women, economic marginalisation and lip service paid to Islamic equality.

There needs to be an agenda on the burqa, for both the Muslim world and the west, but not the way it is being done now. The French are callously patting their own backs for creating secularism 2.0, and the Muslims ranting in reactionary fervour in defence of it. True freedom of choice is compromised on both ends of the arguments.

The French need to realise that wearing a burqa is a legitimate choice of a person who, with independence and soundness of mind, chooses to practice their religion that way. And Muslims have a responsibility to view the opposite end of the coin and recognise women have the choice not to wear it. As a Pakhtoon who grew up in a conservative atmosphere, I have always admired modesty, but not when it is a travesty.

The writer is a Rhodes scholar and former academic. Email: fasizaka@

Deepak Chopra: Mini Skirts Yes, Burqas No? - Huffington Post
Sarkozy’s unveiled intolerance - Boston Globe

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